The designer inspired by hospital stays and gay hook-up culture
Strong Theveethivarak combines his native Thai spiritualism and his experience of the London scene through exacting tailoring.
Luck is something that Strong Theveethivarak, the London-based designer behind Strongthe, has always held dear -- in no small part due to his Thai roots. “Thailand can be such a funny place,” he explains. “People really believe in spirituality and there are a lot of traditions and superstitions.” Indeed, the country’s wealth of rituals and customs associated with bringing about good fortune are well documented, even beyond its borders -- ‘spirit trees’ being among the better known. “Basically, we believe that when people have stress about luck, whatever the reason, they should pray to the spirits thought to live in certain trees,” the designer continues. Those trees, by the way, are easily identifiable by the strips of coloured fabric tied about their trunks and boughs. “Typically, they have seven colours wrapped around them. For this collection, I played around with things that relate to that spiritual heritage," he says, darting across his Dalston studio to pick out a tan jersey polo neck, around which bands of chiffon in a pastel rainbow of hues are tautly bound.
A closer look at their knots -- with two tapered ends dangling floppily from each -- and their gauze-y texture offers a closer insight into Strong’s obsession with all that’s auspicious. Though turned to by anyone, whether in need of luck in love or with winning the lottery, the tree-tying tradition is particularly popular among those praying for good fortune in health.
“I recently spent time in hospital in 2019, as my aunt had cancer, from which she sadly passed away,” says Strong. “For about three months, I was back in Thailand to take care of her, as she helped raise me. During her final days, we had many serious conversations, and through them, I realised that I wanted to do something thoughtful about health and wellbeing for this collection.” He fittingly titled that collection ‘Lucky’.
That its poignant theme isn’t necessarily evident on first viewing is a testament to the designer’s impressive subtlety. Thematic details accent, rather than dominate, the collection’s silhouettes, rendering the clothes accessible to many more than those who directly empathise with Strong’s experiences.
That doesn’t, however, mean that the collection's health-first narrative is at all concealed. A single-breasted cream mackintosh is a case in point, with its shoulders that slope from the reassuring weight of the cotton from which it’s cut. Inspired by the designer's own extensive experiences of being bed-bound on account of illness, its silhouette draws upon the comfort you seek when under physical duress. “I always play around with the idea of health issues, partly because it's something I grew up with -- I’ve spent a large part of my life in and out of hospitals,” he explains. “Some of the coats and jackets are made from blankets and throws, they’re perfect for wrapping around yourself when you sit.” A similar logic of making clothes to accompany you through your convalescence results in viscose-blend shirt-and-trouser sets, their aggressive creases suggesting how once-crisp pyjamas could look after several bedridden months.
While explicit references to sickness might typically connote weakness, to Strong, they’re as much a source of confidence as they are of comfort. "I think it's because I've spent a lot of time in bed being ill, so if I have something wrapped around me then I feel more confident, more secure," he says, a sentiment detectable in the quilted tartan trouser leg that graduates into a sling-tie around the shoulder, or the pocketed cummerbund-cum-back brace -- each a piece that supports as much as it swaddles.
The rounded silhouettes and blanket-like cottons are counterpoised by the sharpness of Strong’s tailoring, offering a more familiar take on ‘confident’ menswear. The ‘third leg trousers’ from his 2018 Central Saint Martins MA collection return, with an extra leg extending from the hip as if to shield an immobilised leg behind. With another pair, artful draping creates the illusion that one pair has been hastily pulled on over another. There’s also a mandarin-collared jacket with neat panels of white chiffon gauze extending from darts on the shoulder down each breast. An oddly utilitarian silhouette in a collection seemingly committed to the idea of comfort, it occupies a particular soft spot for Strong.
“It’s inspired by the uniform my dad wore to work. It's something that makes me feel secure because it's so familiar,” he says, with that sense of familiarity conjuring the same sense of confidence for him as the comfort of a blanket’s embrace. “There's also a relationship between uniform and strength, too."
There’s a point, however, where Strong’s clothes commitment to bringing their wearers luck turns to a will to help them get lucky. The sensuous undertones suggested by the skin-tight knotted pieces becomes full-frontal in a look that might easily slip under prudish radars: a slim-tailored black shirt with pale mint green pockets, and a pair of towelled cotton trousers with a slanting panel slipping just below the button-fly. “That’s the dick-appointment look,” Strong curtly states. How, you ask? Well, those of you that have passed this subtly smutty Rorschach test will clock that the shirt’s pocket cut-outs neatly correspond to the eyes of the Grindr logo, inspired by his friends’ rampant use of the app. And the slipping-towel trousers are, according to the designer, the perfect piece for a trip to the sauna...
Not all of Strong’s pieces conceal such dirty double entendres though. The inspiration for some of the collections stand out pieces -- a cropped cream two-piece suit dripping with thick crystal-tipped fronds, for example -- is altogether more mundane. "Basically, I eat a lot of green beans, and one day I was at the hospital and thought they looked a bit like mini IV tubes,” he says. “I played around with that, and just thought, ‘OK, why not?’.” And thus the ‘string bean’ looks were born.
This everyday-object-oriented approach is something Strong shares with a generation of young fashion talent originally from Bangkok -- in particular VeniceW, an old school friend of his, and PZToday, with whom he’s regularly collaborated. “The Bangkok Three!” Strong jests, before going on to muse on the similarities that underpin their work. “I think our work has some humour to it -- we like to have fun. I remember the first collaboration I did with PZ on the ‘napkin ring’ -- people didn't quite know what to think. But we just thought ‘why not?!’.”
Indeed, there’s an unencumbered optimism that permeates the work of all three designers. But it’s perhaps in Strong’s that it’s most poignantly felt, for his is a collection that reminds us of how ill-fate can be transformed into something else through careful craft. It’s an encouraging message for gloomy times: when faced with adversity, there’s always something to make of it.
Photography Greg Lin Jiajie
Styling Jack Collins
Hair John Allan
Casting Chloe Rosolek